Why Selectively Quoting Orwell's 'Objectively Pro-Fascist' Line Matters


Monday night, in a combative episode of The Independents, I kind of jumped down the throat of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton after he attempted to transplant George Orwell's famous WWII-era line that "Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist" onto the 2014 debate over whether the U.S. should have gone to war against the murderous regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Orwell, I shot back, later repudiated his line, and rightly so. Bolton asked for a citation. I'll provide that and more below the whole contentious interview (which you can also read about over at Mediaite):

The first important thing about Orwell's quote, which comes from a Partisan Review polemic worth reading in full, is that it was written in August 1942—a time when Nazi Germany and its allies occupied all of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, plus almost all of northwest Africa and most of Asia's eastern shore. There had been times since the onset of Hitler's aggressively expansionist war that England felt surrounded, besieged, and alone. If ever there was a context in which one could plausibly make the claim that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist, it would be early 1940s England.

Which brings us to the second important part of Orwell's quote. Those people fond of deploying it in a modern context either use and adapt the five-word phrase, "_________ is objectively pro-Fascist," or excerpt these three sentences from Orwell's essay:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.

Our selective Orwell fans almost never quote the very next sentence. Which is: "Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one." In other words, England vs. the Axis in 1942 was nobody's war of choice.

Since the end of World War II, America has never once been in a situation even remotely like England's in the early 1940s. Paradoxically, this helps explain why U.S. interventionists of all stripes lean so heavily on the rhetorical crutch of 1938-42 geopolitics: "Munich," "Neville Chamberlain," "appeasement," "objectively pro-fascist," and so on. They seek to cloak their arguments in the unearned virtue of opposing Adolf Hitler, portray their political opponents as actively working for the enemy, and above all remove the foreign policy crisis du jour from the realm of elective debate. Because if we're up against Hitler 2.0, there is no choice, except between teams "With us" and "Against us," and the only real question is where, exactly, to draw the red line beyond which the U.S. must use force in order to maintain "credibility."

This interventionist Godwinning is all around you, every day. In today's Wall Street Journal, former vice president Dick Cheney writes that "appeasing our enemies" and "abandoning our allies" are "hallmarks" of the "Obama doctrine." In today's Washington Post, Michael Doran and Max Boot write:

The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful as the notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe.

The Orwell line works not only as useful (if historically illiterate) analogy, but also as a sharp turn of phrase designed to place its targets on the defensive. But the third and most important thing about that quote is that Orwell himself repudiated it, in an essay he wrote while England was still at war with Hitler, albeit in the much more optimistic season of December 1944.

The top half of the piece is a lament for the piss-poor quality of political argumentation in contemporary England. Excerpt:

Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a 'case' with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don't want to see them. The same propaganda tricks are to be found almost everywhere. It would take many pages of this paper merely to classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit – disregard of an opponent's motives. The key-word here is 'objectively'.

We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are 'objectively' aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once.

Italics mine. So what's Orwell's problem with the formulation? That it conflates motive with outcome, and blinds the speaker to potentially important truths:

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people's motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. For there are occasions when even the most misguided person can see the results of what he is doing. Here is a crude but quite possible illustration. A pacifist is working in some job which gives him access to important military information, and is approached by a German secret agent. In those circumstances his subjective feelings do make a difference. If he is subjectively pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he isn't, he won't.

That distinction between "motives" and "results" is crucial, particularly for the John Boltons of the world. After all, the man (like many GOP hawks) is focused like a laser beam on beating back the pernicious designs of Iran. Yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. military intervention in Iraq has vastly strengthened Tehran's hands. Is John Bolton "objectively pro-Mullah"? I would never level such an accusation, in part because I take all of Orwell seriously.

And don't just take my hippie word for it: Eugene Volokh, to cite one person more interventionist than me, wrote approvingly of Orwell's later reconsideration in both 2002 and 2009. If it's truth you seek, you will not use "objectively pro-Fascist" to describe someone who doesn't share your enthusiasm for launching a U.S. war of choice. And call me a crazy optimist, but I still believe that there are occasions when even the most misguided person can learn from the lousy results of their actions.